Governments cannot ignore mental health pandemic
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis has transformed our world into a dystopian nightmare that keeps intensifying, with little clarity about the months ahead. Governments around the world have enforced strict lockdowns, leaving behind a melancholic trail of closed schools, empty airports, deserted streets, and locked-up cafes and stores.
In response, many lifestyle publications have been publishing a variety of consoling pieces on how to spend one’s time in quarantine. Ideas include the online book clubs we can join, how to whip up sumptuous homemade treats, taking up gardening, or hosting an online Netflix film night. In much the same spirit, Leila Slimani, an eminent French author, last month published her confinement diary. Her days are being spent at her home in the countryside, reveling in dreamy sunrises and blossoming lime trees. She describes this experience as similar to the story of “Sleeping Beauty.”
For those who are not so lucky to use this time to transform themselves or catch up on hobbies or reading lists, the lockdown could, in stark contrast, lead to deteriorating mental health. In fact, millions have lost their jobs and are facing financial hardship, in addition to finding themselves isolated and lonely, living with abusive partners or parents, grieving the loss of loved ones, deprived of essential medical or social services, or left behind in their education.
Researchers who have studied previous infectious disease outbreaks, such as the 2009 swine flu pandemic and the 2003 SARS epidemic, have found that a public health emergency can harm people’s mental health in the long run. A study on SARS survivors concluded that 44 percent still suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder four years after their infection, with symptoms being more severe in those who had a high mortality risk, low social support, and those who endured the loss of someone from the disease.
An ongoing research project on the impact of COVID-19 on fear and anxiety levels among 7,000 adults in the US and Canada has found that 25 percent have developed “COVID stress syndrome,” characterized by crippling fears of infection and mortality, worrying about a looming economic recession, experiencing coronavirus-related nightmares, and suffering from anxiety due to excessive consumption of news.
History also teaches us that recessions result in increased suicide rates. An unemployment surge in 1982 cut the collective lifespans of Americans by a total of 2 to 3 million years. During the 2007-09 recession, suicide rates in the US and Europe claimed the lives of 10,000 more people than prior to this period. If today’s ominous unemployment forecasts do indeed surge to 20 percent, the US and Europe could record an additional 20,000 suicides due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Students are also facing a challenging time adjusting to online learning or, in some cases, missing out on their education entirely. UNESCO states that more than 1.5 billion students (or 91 percent of the total number enrolled worldwide) have been affected by school and college closures. Education experts are concerned that students living in poverty or unpredictable home environments are seven times more likely to drop out of school before graduating, which will consequently impact their employment prospects, income levels, health status, and overall quality of life. Special education students are the most vulnerable. Without consistent, customized and structured therapy and schooling sessions, these students could face more strenuous challenges in the upcoming months.
The lockdown is also triggering increased cases of domestic violence, or “intimate terrorism,” as experts prefer to call it. UN chief Antonio Guterres recently tweeted: “I urge all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.” Since lockdowns began, many countries have seen a rise in domestic violence cases. The UK’s National Domestic Abuse helpline has seen a 25 percent increase in calls and online requests for help; in Spain, the government’s emergency hotline for domestic violence had 12.4 percent more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown; and, in France, there have been 32 percent more domestic violence cases, including two murders.
Many governments have been agile in addressing people’s need for help during lockdown. For example, the French government has announced an extra €1 million ($1.08 million) to support anti-domestic abuse organizations. The government will also be paying for 20,000 hotel nights so that victims can escape their abusive partners. Additionally, 20 pop-up counselling centers have been set up in grocery stores so that women can seek assistance. Victims can also go to pharmacies to report domestic abuse, saying the code word “mask 19” to prompt the pharmacist to contact the authorities.
The government in Canada’s British Columbia province is investing $5 million to deliver new and expanded mental health programs. Services include online services focused on coaching and coping skills, counseling for immigrant and refugee populations, virtual support for youths, and support for front-line health care workers.
Many governments have been agile in addressing people’s need for help during lockdown.
The UAE government recently launched a national campaign for mental support — an online initiative on various social media channels. The program includes hosting more than 50 experts in the fields of psychology, mental and social support, and life skills. The initiative aims to provide expert advice on mental support, overcoming challenges, sharing coping skills, and building mental resilience.
Governments across the globe need to secure funds to address a looming mental health crisis. They need to commission ongoing research to understand the unique challenges that different population segments are facing. Publishing evidence-based guidance regarding safeguarding mental well-being is imperative, as is providing access to mental health programs at all times. While health care plans are mainly focusing on combating the COVID-19 outbreak, it is important not to miss the other health pandemic it is stirring.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.